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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Rising Fast: Charting Rasmus Andersson's Journey from Swedish Kid to a Top Flames Prospect

You can picture him now. There's Rasmus Andersson, 15 years old, sitting on the top step of his parents house, waiting for his ride to hockey.

Finally a car pulls up, honks the horn twice and Andersson slings his bag over his shoulder and heads to the vehicle, tossing his gear in the trunk. Away they drive.

So far, it sounds like a normal run-of-the-mill winter day in Canada.

But it isn't what you're thinking.

Instead, it's Sweden, the guy in his 30s behind the steering wheel is not a friend's dad driving Andersson to bantam practice but is Tomas Kollar, captain of the hometown Malmo Redhawks and the two teammates are heading to the 13,000 seat Malmo Arena for a home game against former Flame Michael Nylander and his club Sodertalje.

"It was a little bit like that, just without the hockey bag," says Andersson, with a grin. "I lived at home and Tomas lived close by so he picked me up every morning and I went with him to practices and stuff. He took care of me really well."

This was the arrangement for 2012-13 and 2013-14, Andersson's two years playing pro hockey in the Allsvenskan, which is essentially Sweden's second division.

For those not familiar with how it works over there, second division does not mean similar to the AHL. Malmo was not a farm team comprised mostly of younger prospects, it's a regular pro team but just not one playing at that time in Sweden's top division, known as the Swedish Hockey League (although Malmo has been promoted to the SHL for 2015-16). Think of it this way. If the NHL was to take the bottom 10 finishers in last year's standings and separate them into their own league, that's what the comparison is for the Allsvenskan.


A Boy Among Men

In his rookie season, Andersson was the youngest on the team by two years. Next at 17 was Washington Capitals 2013 first round draft pick Andre Burakovsky. There were two 20-year-olds and everybody else on the team was 23 or older. In fact, many of the players he was playing with were on the team when his father played for them.

Looking to pair up youth with experience, Malmo's coach ensured Andersson's defence partner was always Jens Olsson, 27, or Johan Bjork, 28.

Those two along with Kollar are the teammates Andersson says he's most grateful to for helping him get to where he is today, which is suddenly one of the top prospects in the Flames system. On Monday, Andersson capped off an impressive showing at the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton by signing a three-year entry-level deal with the Flames.

"Those three in particular helped me a lot. I either played with Jens or Johan and they helped me every practice and every game to get ready," said Andersson. "That was huge of them and without them, I probably wouldn't have had that much success."

Interestingly, in his first season he stayed on his own at hotels when the team went on road trips. That's right, stayed on his own at age 15 (he turned 16 a couple months into the season. While he didn't have anybody rooming with him, he says he also didn't have time to get himself into trouble either.

"The guys took care of me. You weren't really alone, you were only alone when you went to bed. Otherwise, you were with the team at all times," said Andersson.

Back in Malmo when team members went home from practice to be with their families or went out to particular establishments Andersson wasn't old enough to accompany them to, that was his chance to hang out with his friends from around town, who he grew up with.

"Sometimes I went home. I took care of one of the guy's kids once. But I never felt alone. I had my other buddies too and we'd do other things than hockey," said Andersson, who had completed school by 15.

In his second season, he did end up with a roomate and it was someone he's been roommates with before. In fact, for his entire life. It was his brother Calle, two-and-a-half years older, who was a fourth round draft pick in 2012 by the New York Rangers.


Making the Jump to Canada

During that second season, Andersson became unhappy with his ice time and talked to his agent, former NHLer Claude Lemieux, about his options.

"I got stuck a little bit in my second year of pro, I didn't play as much and I needed a change," said Andersson.

In July 2014, Andersson was drafted 47th in the CHL's Import Draft by the Barrie Colts. Lemieux's son Brendan also played for Barrie.

"Claude suggested to go to the OHL and he knew a lot about the team and about the coaching staff so he recommended it a lot," said Andersson. "I always wanted to try and play over here so that's when I made the decision to go and play for Barrie."

Lying in wait for Anderssson was a golden opportunity too. The 2014 NHL Draft had just taken place and Colts defenceman Aaron Ekblad had been selected first overall. Safe to say he wasn't going to be returning.

"I knew I wasn't as big as Ekblad but I'm a right-handed defenceman, who likes to play power plays, same as he did," says Andersson. "Claude said there will be a spot open and it would be Ekblad's spot so you've got to do your best with it and I guess I had a pretty OK season."

OK is a bit of an understatement. Andersson finished third in scoring among OHL defencemen with 64 points (12 goals, 52 assists) in 67 games. That was 11 points more than Ekblad compiled the previous year.

The strong season raised his stock and the Flames would take him in the second round of the draft, 53rd overall. Calgary was ecstatic to get him where they got him with GM Brad Treliving saying earlier this summer they had him ranked considerably higher.

"I learned a lot and the coaches helped me a lot in the beginning," said Andersson, whose stall in the dressing room ended up right beside some kid named Andrew Mangiapane. "My first 10, 15 games weren't the best because I had never played in a small rink before so it was a little hard in the beginning but once I got used to it, it felt really good and I'm really happy with that decision."

If you caught him in action this weekend in Penticton, it would not surprise you to hear that he prefers the smaller rink.

"For sure, it's more fun to play over here. More hits and faster hockey," he says.


Lasting First Impression

Flames assistant general manager Craig Conroy spoke to the media Monday night after Calgary's final game -- a 3-2 overtime loss to Vancouver. In identifying players that stood out over the course of the four days, Andersson's play got a lot of love. Safe to say he's quickly establishing himself as one of the prospects the organization is most excited about.

"He was our best defenceman," said Conroy. "His poise, the way he looks players off. Bob (Hartley) and I were sitting up there and I don't want to get too far ahead of myself but he made a couple (Sergei) Zubov head fakes, shoulder fakes. Fake a guy this way, pass it the other way, but that's what he does. He's just so poised with the puck, he's calm. He loves to join the offence too, he loves to get in the rush."

Of course, the storyline from Saturday's game with the Edmonton Oilers was Andersson -- against better judgement -- dropping the gloves with ornery Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse. Andersson, who had never had a hockey fight, against Nurse, who has had several. It was a one-sided beating but as I captured in my post-game recap from that game, everyone in that Flames dressing room expressed their utmost respect for what Andersson did.

Conroy touched on the incident too.

"He's real competitive and that's what I like. With him getting in there with Nurse, you probably don't want him doing that but I give him a lot of credit. It takes guts to get in there. Nurse is a tough guy and he was no worse for the wear after so he was good."

Andersson was also great in game one, singled out by coach Ryan Huska in that game's recap for his solid play given the Flames had to play five defenceman pretty much all night.


Putting Pen to Paper

"It's a huge thing to sign your first NHL deal and it's a dream coming true (that I've had) ever since I was a little kid," said Andersson. "When you start playing hockey. You want to be the best as possible and obviously you want to play in the National Hockey League as quick as you can."

With the start of Flames main training camp just two days away, Andersson will probably spend much of today fielding calls after the big announcement. He had already talked to his father Peter, who played briefly in the NHL splitting 47 games in the early 90s between the Rangers and the Florida Panthers.

"I talked to my Dad first. Obviously, he's really excited and he's happy for me," said Anderssson. "I will probably have a lot of phone calls tomorrow when I wake up, they're nine hours ahead of us so my phone will probably buzz a lot in the morning."

Don't be surprised if one of those messages is from Koller, a true captain, who helped Andersson's pro career start off the right way by getting him to the rink every day those two years back in Malmo.

"It's been so quick, everything, I can't believe that I just got signed and got drafted a couple months ago. Everything is still really new for me and I couldn't be more excited to be here," he said.

Safe to say the Flames are just as excited.

Heck, maybe when Andersson ultimately gets to Calgary, it will be Conroy that stops by to pick him up on the way to the Saddledome. Although a couple years away still and with a nice NHL deal in his back pocket, good chance Andersson will have his own wheels by then. But a roommate on the road isn't out of the question, which might make for a nice change.



By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.

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